The New Testament helps flesh out the true nature of the Sabbath rest. It is interesting to note that many of Jesus’ healing miracles were intentionally performed on the Sabbath. There seem to be at least two reasons for this: 1) By expanding (so to speak) on the concept of the Sabbath, Jesus was establishing His divinity, putting Himself on equal footing with God; and 2) Jesus was correcting the misuses and abuses of the Sabbath rest, helping His people to more fully enjoy God’s provision of it.
We must not make the mistake of calling Jesus a Sabbath breaker, simply because the Pharisees accused Him of such. They also accused Him of being a glutton and a drunkard (Mt. 11:19). It is easy and convenient for us to say that Jesus broke the Sabbath all the time, but to say that is to side with the viewpoint of the Pharisees. In reality, Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father. No divine law—including the commandment to honor the Sabbath day as holy—was ever broken by the Savior.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus never revoked God’s command for a weekly Sabbath rest. On the contrary, His repeated use of the Sabbath as a catalyst for confronting the Pharisees shows the importance of the commandment. Jesus wanted to make sure that its purposes did not continue to be misconstrued.
Christ’s first confrontation with the Pharisees over the Sabbath is recorded in Matthew 12.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:1-8).
At that time.
It is important to note what “time” this took place. Jesus had just finished talking about the subject of rest. Look at what he said just prior to this incident: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Straightaway after offering a promise of rest for the souls of men, Jesus used the Sabbath as an object lesson.
Your disciples are doing what is not lawful.
This was the perfect opportunity for Jesus to proclaim the end of the Sabbath requirement (if it really had ended), or the upcoming end of its usefulness (if it was going to soon be abolished). Instead, Jesus responded with several statements that served to clarify the application of the Sabbath rest.
Profane the Sabbath, and are blameless.
The priests were commanded to offer sacrifices even on the Sabbath (Num. 28:9-20), and if a newborn’s eighth day fell on the Sabbath, he was still supposed to receive circumcision (Jn. 7:22, 23).
“The Sabbath was the busiest day in the week for the priests. They baked and changed the showbread; they performed sabbatical sacrifices (Nu 28:9), and two lambs were killed on the sabbath in addition to the daily sacrifice. This involved the killing, skinning, and cleaning of the animals, and the building of the fire to consume the sacrifice. They also trimmed the gold lamps, burned incense, and performed various other duties. The profanation of the Sabbath, however, was not real, but merely apparent. Jesus cites this priestly work to prove that the Sabbath prohibition was not universal, and hence might not include what the disciples had done. The fourth commandment did not forbid work absolutely, but labor for worldly gain. Activity in the work of God was both allowed and commanded” (J. W. McGarvey).
Greater than the temple.
“The Jews had a saying, that in the temple there was no sabbath. They looked upon the temple as sanctifying all actions done there. To obviate this, (saith our Saviour), In this place is one (that is, I am) greater than the temple. The temple was but a type of me. If the temple can sanctify so much labour, will not my authority and permission, think you, excuse this little labour of my disciples?” (Matthew Poole).
The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.
Notice the wording Christ chose. He gave Himself a title: Lord of the Sabbath. It would be meaningless to call Himself the master of a defunct institution. No, as Lord of the fourth commandment (and every other commandment), He claimed the authority to explain the purpose and practice of the institution, as God originally designed it.
Commentaries Cited from
Hall, Kay. Online Bible. Beersheba Springs: Ken Hamel, 2000. CD-ROM.
Commentaries and Topical Studies, by J. W. McGarvey
Annotations upon the Holy Bible, by Matthew Poole